24 August 2017

Luke 22:24-30

“But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.’” (vv. 25-26)

Psalm: Psalm 145


Why did Jesus use the Gentiles (non-Jews) to make his point here? Throughout his ministry, he often criticised the leaders of his own people, yet here, when trying to give his disciples an example of what they were not to do, he specifically cites "the kings of the Gentiles". We have to wonder whether this was because in Jesus' day, Israel had been occupied by Gentiles, and the disciples would have been acutely aware of what it was like to have foreigners exercise power over them.

Being part of the Roman Empire often meant some kind of experience of the Roman system of patronage, in which the more wealthy and powerful became patrons of those who were weaker or of a lower social class. In return, the client was expected to offer their services and loyalty to their patron and to honour them publicly. Having many clients was seen as making the patron appear all the greater. Like any other way of organising society, the system could be abused and clients could find that their patron took advantage of them.

It is likely that Jesus' reference to being called a benefactor implied some form of this system of patronage. Imagine being the client with an abusive patron; someone who not only expected to order you about but also demanded that you praise them in public. There is something particularly unpleasant about being asked to honour someone who you believe to be behaving very badly.

It can feel very strange to us that the disciples are often shown in the Gospels arguing very openly about who is the greatest - something which it seems was more acceptable in their society than ours. The original readers of Luke's Gospel might have been quite used to such disputes, especially at a banquet where great attention would have been paid to who was seated where, so it is worth remembering that this passage took place at the Last Supper. In fact, when Jesus said "But not so with you", he was challenging the assumptions of a society which was very concerned with public honour.

To Ponder

  • If Jesus were speaking today - to what examples of power being exercised badly might he have pointed?
  • Are there ways in which we compete for honour or power today, even if more subtly than the disciples? What might we do to resist this temptation?

Bible notes author

The Revd Judith Rossall

Judith Rossall is a Methodist tutor at Queen's Foundation in Birmingham. Before moving to Queen's, she was a circuit minister and taught at STETS in Salisbury.